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Emily Thornberry urges Labour conference to back remaining in EU

The shadow foreign secretary has been one of the most prominent figures calling for Labour to shift its official position.

Emily Thornberry used her keynote speech at the Labour conference to urge activists to call for the party to throw its weight behind the Remain cause (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Emily Thornberry used her keynote speech at the Labour conference to urge activists to call for the party to throw its weight behind the Remain cause (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

By David Hughes, PA Political Editor

A senior member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet called on Labour activists to vote for the party to campaign to stay in the European Union.

Emily Thornberry used her keynote speech at the Labour conference to urge activists to call for the party to throw its weight behind the Remain cause now – in defiance of Mr Corbyn’s stance of remaining neutral until after a general election.

Labour will go into the expected election promising to negotiate a new deal with Brussels before putting it to a referendum, but Mr Corbyn wants a decision on how his party would campaign in that contest to be delayed until a special conference.

Delegates at Labour’s conference in Brighton will vote on whether the party should decide now on whether to campaign to stay in the EU, even if that means rejecting a deal Mr Corbyn has negotiated with the EU.

In her set-piece speech from the conference platform in Brighton, shadow foreign secretary Ms Thornberry was applauded as she called for a Remain stance.

She told activists: “With your endorsement today, conference, with the instructions that I hope you give us today, I believe we must strive night and day, whatever it takes, to keep Britain in the European Union.”

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(PA Graphics)

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, who backs Remain, confirmed that a Labour government would legislate immediately for a referendum, which would be held within six months of taking office.

“If you want a referendum, vote Labour. If you want a final say on Brexit, vote Labour,” he told the conference.

“If you want to fight for Remain, vote Labour.”

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who has also said he will campaign for a Remain vote in the promised referendum, said the process put forward by Mr Corbyn was “logical” and insisted “there isn’t any war in the Labour Party” over the issue.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “It’s very difficult for people to determine their position in advance of knowing the detail of that deal, but my view, actually I think, because I campaigned for Remain, I can’t see at the moment a better deal being achieved. And that’s my view.

“That’s why I’m saying I’m happy to go along with this logical sequence. And I’m happy for others to challenge me and say, ‘actually, no, this is a better deal’ – I’d like that debate.”

The actions of Ms Thornberry and other shadow cabinet minister who back Remain led to Unite union boss Len McCluskey suggesting they should either get in line or “step aside” from their frontbench roles.

Mr McDonnell told Sky News: “Len is being Len. We are working together as a party to make sure the people have a choice and the people will decide.”

The result of the Brexit vote will hinge on whether the unions decide to back Mr Corbyn’s position, which was set out in a statement from the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

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Len McCluskey applauds during the Labour Party Conference (Gareth Fuller/PA)

It is understood that Unison will vote against the NEC statement on Brexit later today at the party’s annual conference, and support the motion calling for Labour to campaign for remain.

A source said the move was aimed at giving a clear and unambiguous message on Brexit to help bring about the election of a Labour government.

The Usdaw union is set to back all three options on the table.

Most other unions are expected to support the NEC statement, with Mr McCluskey pleading with delegates to back Mr Corbyn.

He told the conference: “I implore you, please give Jeremy the support he needs later so that prime minister Corbyn can lead us to a bright new dawn.”

A pro-Remain source said the vote was “on a knife edge” but the Unison endorsement could be vital.

Mr Corbyn’s NEC statement was emailed round the body and endorsed without a formal meeting on Saturday, despite opposition from some members.

Jon Lansman, boss of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum campaign group and an NEC member, said the process had been a “travesty”.

Before the Brexit showdown, Mr McDonnell used his keynote speech to set out a series of policies to “lay the foundations of a new society”, including a commitment to an average 32-hour working week within a decade.

But his speech was criticised by business leaders, with CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn saying: “It is time for Labour to root its polices in reality, not ideology.”

Elsewhere at the conference, Mr Corbyn snapped at the press, urging them to “behave with respect” after a scrum formed around him as he toured stands at the conference centre.

Addressing “our friends in the media” he said: “This is our conference, these are our stalls, your behaviour – pushing past people, pushing people over, pushing past people who want to legitimately visit stalls, is totally unacceptable.”

PA

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